Please… Don’t Call Me The Baby-Sitter!

Recently, something happened which caused me to realize how much I hate the word “baby-sitter.” It’s not that I despise the word in and of itself. Instead, I only have an adverse reaction when it’s used in conjunction with me and my two girls.

One day, when my oldest daughter, Taylor, was eighteen months old, we went to the grand opening of a massive book store. Once inside, Taylor and I discovered the biggest children's section we'd ever seen. There were mountains of books, and an enormous stage where the kids could play. It was the “Disneyland” of children's bookstores. Instantly, Taylor situated herself in the middle of the stage and began reading a book. After a few minutes, I noticed that Taylor was now playing with finger paint. “Brown finger paint?” I wondered. “Where did she get that?” Then it dawned on me. That wasn't paint!

Earlier that day, Taylor had developed a rash on her bottom. Consequently, the combination of her rash and a messy diaper, resulted in a very itchy toddler. As a result of her scratching, Taylor “painted” some of the stage and several books with the contents of her diaper. As I scrambled to clean the stage and keep Taylor from “painting me,” a nearby mother jokingly said something which has had a profound effect upon my life. She said, “Isn’t baby-sitting fun?”

It wasn’t until several months ago that I realized why her comment bothered me. It was the fact that she said “baby-sitting.” She didn’t say, “Isn’t parenting difficult?” Instead she saw me as a father who was merely baby-sitting his daughter. I’ve often wished I’d responded, “No…I’m fathering!” Since that day I’ve become very sensitive to the word baby-sitter. Sadly, I’ve heard that word used to describe my relationship with my girls many times since then. To make matters worse, I’ve never heard anyone say that to my wife. Then it hit me. Could this be another factor which contributes to absentee fathering? Perhaps.

Some people might think, “Come on Smalley…It’s just a word…You’re making too big of a deal…Lighten up!” But the more I think about this subtle message, the more I’m convinced that it has had an effect upon fathers. The reason is because of a psychological phenomenon called confirmation bias. To explain this, experts say that people tend to see what they expect to see in others and in situations. In other words, we look for evidence that confirms what we already think is true about a person or situation. We can be wrong in our assumptions, but we all have formed beliefs and expectations about why people will do what they do. What does this have to do with dads being called baby-sitters? Plenty. If people view a dad as baby-sitting, whatever he does may be perceived as evidence that he is like a baby-sitter.

The problem with this perception is that there are three major differences between parents and baby-sitters. First, a baby-sitter has no long-term responsibility. In other words, they have authority for a brief time, and have a way out when things get difficult–call parents to come home. Second, they have a limited role. Their job is to entertain kids and maintain the rules of the house, but it is not to “parent” the children. Finally, a baby-sitter has brief, intense interactions. They experience short and concentrated interactions while leaving all other responsibilities outside the home to focus exclusively on the children. Therefore, they do not need to balance other aspects of life when taking care of the children.

How many times do we hear fathers being accused of the above three aspects? Isn’t it interesting how closely absentee fathers resemble a baby-sitter. I’m not trying to imply that simply being called a baby-sitter can lead to a father being uninvolved with his family. But subtle messages can be powerful. So how can fathers reverse the effects and make a change? Get MAD!

1. Mind.

In Romans 12:2 it says, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” This verse should be the battle cry for dads all across the country because “fathering” starts in our minds. Renewal simply means to reestablish or to bring into being again. We need to renew our position as involved fathers and not as baby-sitters. But this must begin in our minds first.

2. Action.

Once we change our minds, we need to let our behavior follow as evidence to confirm our place as fathers. The best way to take action is to discover precisely how we can best “father” our children. Each person in the family may need something different. Furthermore, since the family is constantly changing, we must adapt to this change by rediscovering or “renewing” what each person needs with the passage of time. The greatest way to find out what each person needs is to ask questions like, “What do you specifically need from me?” or “As a father, how can I love you the way you need to be loved?”

3. Determination.

The first way to be determined as a father is to pray each day that God provides the necessary strength and wisdom to be an effective father. Second, a determined dad regularly asks his family how effective he is. One way to accomplish this is to ask each family member, “On a scale from 0-10, with ten being the best, how am I as a father?” Then, whatever the answer, a determined dad will ask what specific things he can to get to a ten. Finally, determination also means seeking accountability from other determined fathers. As Ecclesiastes 4:12 states, strength comes in numbers: “And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.”

If your desire is to reverse the baby-sitter trend many fathers have fallen into then we need to get MAD. Through persistence and faithful prayer, we can reclaim our place as fathers in the lives of our children. Then, if you ever find yourself trying to pull a “finger-painted” child off of a stage, someone can say to you, “Isn’t fathering fun?”

Greg Smalley, PsyD
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Dr. Smalley previously served as the director of Marriage Ministries for The Center for Healthy Relationships. He is the author or co-author of twelve books concerning marriages and families, and currently serves as the executive director of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family.

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